Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 03, 2024, from

1. Life and sources

Socrates, an Athenian citizen proud of his devotion to Athens, lived his adult life there engaging in open philosophical discussion and debate on fundamental questions of ethics, politics, religion and education. Going against the grain of the traditional education, he insisted that personal investigation and reasoned argument, rather than ancestral custom, or appeal to the authority of Homer, Hesiod and other respected poets, was the only proper basis for answering these questions. His emphasis on argument and logic and his opposition to unquestioning acceptance of tradition allied him with such Sophists of a generation earlier as Protagoras, Gorgias and Prodicus, none of whom was an Athenian, but all of whom spent time lecturing and teaching at Athens (see Sophists). Unlike these Sophists Socrates did not formally offer himself or accept pay as a teacher. But many upper-class young Athenian men gathered round him to hear and engage in his discussions, and he had an inspirational and educational effect upon them, heightening their powers of critical thought and encouraging them to take seriously their individual responsibility to think through and decide how to conduct their lives. Many of his contemporaries perceived this education as morally and socially destructive – it certainly involved subverting accepted beliefs – and he was tried in 399 bc before an Athenian popular court and condemned to death on a charge of ‘impiety’: that he did not believe in the Olympian gods, but in new ones instead, and corrupted the young. Scholars sometimes mention specifically political motives of revenge, based on guilt by association: a number of prominent Athenians who were with Socrates as young men or were close friends did turn against the Athenian democracy and collaborated with the Spartans in their victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian war. But an amnesty passed by the restored democracy in 403 bc prohibited prosecution for political offences before that date. The rhetorician Polycrates included Socrates’ responsibility for these political crimes in his Accusation of Socrates (see Xenophon, Memorabilia I 2.12), a rhetorical exercise written at least five years after Socrates’ death. But there is no evidence that, in contravention of the amnesty, Socrates’ actual accusers covertly attacked him, or his jurors condemned him, on that ground. The defences Plato and Xenophon constructed for Socrates, each in his respective Apology, imply that it was his own questioning mind and what was perceived as the bad moral influence he had on his young men that led to his trial and condemnation.

Socrates left no philosophical works, and apparently wrote none. His philosophy and personality were made known to later generations through the dialogues that several of his associates wrote with him as principal speaker (see Socratic dialogues). Only fragments survive of those by Aeschines of Sphettus and Antisthenes, both Athenians, and Phaedo of Elis (after whom Plato’s dialogue Phaedo is named). Our own knowledge of Socrates depends primarily on the dialogues of Plato and the Socratic works of the military leader and historian Xenophon. Plato was a young associate of Socrates’ during perhaps the last ten years of his life, and Xenophon knew him during that same period, though he was absent from Athens at the time of Socrates’ death and for several years before and many years after.

We also have secondary evidence from the comic playwright Aristophanes and from Aristotle. Aristotle, although born fifteen years after Socrates’ death, had access through Plato and others to first-hand information about the man and his philosophy. Aristophanes knew Socrates personally; his Clouds (first produced c.423 bc) pillories the ‘new’ education offered by Sophists and philosophers by showing Socrates at work in a ‘thinkery’, propounding outlandish physical theories and teaching young men how to argue cleverly in defence of their improper behaviour. It is significant that in 423, when Socrates was about 45 years old, he could plausibly be taken as a leading representative in Athens of the ‘new’ education. But one cannot expect a comic play making fun of a whole intellectual movement to contain an authentic account of Socrates’ specific philosophical commitments.

However, the literary genre to which Plato’s and Xenophon’s Socratic works belong (along with the other, lost dialogues) also permits the author much latitude; in his Poetics Aristotle counts such works as fictions of a certain kind, alongside epic poems and tragedies. They are by no means records of actual discussions (despite the fact that Xenophon explicitly so represents his). Each author was free to develop his own ideas behind the mask of Socrates, at least within the limits of what his personal experience had led him to believe was Socrates’ basic philosophical and moral outlook. Especially in view of the many inconsistencies between Plato’s and Xenophon’s portraits (see §7 below), it is a difficult question for historical–philosophical interpretation whether the philosophical and moral views the character Socrates puts forward in any of these dialogues can legitimately be attributed to the historical philosopher. The problem of interpretation is made more difficult by the fact that Socrates appears in many of Plato’s dialogues – ones belonging to his middle and later periods (see Plato §§10–16) – discussing and expounding views that we have good reason to believe resulted from Plato’s own philosophical investigations into questions of metaphysics and epistemology, questions that were not entered into at all by the historical Socrates. To resolve this problem – what scholars call the ‘Socratic problem’ – most agree in preferring Plato to Xenophon as a witness. Xenophon is not thought to have been philosopher enough to have understood Socrates well or to have captured the depth of his views and his personality. As for Plato, most scholars accept only the philosophical interests and procedures, and the moral and philosophical views, of the Socrates of the early dialogues, and, more guardedly, the Socrates of ‘transitional’ ones such as Meno and Gorgias, as legitimate representations of the historical personage. These dialogues are the ones that predate the emergence of the metaphysical and epistemological inquiries just referred to. However, even Plato’s early dialogues are philosophical works written to further Plato’s own philosophical interests. That could produce distortions, also; and Xenophon’s relative philosophical innocence could make his portrait in some respects more reliable. Moreover, it is possible, even probable, that in his efforts to help his young men improve themselves Socrates spoke differently to the philosophically more promising ones among them – including Plato – from the way he spoke to others, for example Xenophon. Both portraits could be true, but partial and needing to be combined (see §7). The account of Socrates’ philosophy given below follows Plato, with caution, while giving independent weight also to Xenophon and to Aristotle.

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. Life and sources. Socrates (469–399 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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